09:00 - 28 February 2003
 A new scheme to pay farmers to become rural guardians could "transform
the countryside" and save endangered Devon wildlife.

The pilot project was yesterday launched in four places, including
Tiverton, but after two years it will be rolled out around Britain if it
is a success. It will mean each farmer who joins the project will
receive up to £30 a hectare for using farming methods that encourage
wildlife to thrive.

The project was jointly launched by Environment Minister Michael Meacher
and Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Farming and Food Lord Whitty, who
said they were looking for 50 farmers from the Tiverton area to test the
idea. "This will give Devon farmers plenty of opportunity to use many of
the environmental features they already have," they said.

"It will be a step back in time in the sense we will have certain
animals and birds coming back into the area, but we are not stepping
back in terms of efficiency of food production."

It is hoped that the scheme, which includes measures such as
preservation of hedges and leaving margins around fields, will encourage
the return of animals such as dormice, brown hares and skylarks, and
plants such as cornflowers and the purple knapweed.

James Diamond, area conservation officer for English Nature, said: "This
could transform our landscape and bring knock-on economic benefits to
the region as well.

"We have seen the loss of dormice because of hedgerows being cut every
year, but if they are left to grow lots of nuts and berries, the animals
will return."

Ian Johnson, South West spokesman for the National Farmers' Union, said:
"I think it is very important that as a society we recognise who looks
after our countryside and maintains the sort of landscape that we all
want to enjoy."

Yesterday's announcement moves away from the need for subsidies for
production and towards Europe's increasing desire to focus on the

Lord Whitty said that by introducing the project now, the Government was
"getting ahead of the game".

Announcing the scheme in Berkshire, Mr Meacher said there had already
been a great deal of favourable feedback.

"Over 80 per cent of farmers said they might be interested in joining,"
he said. "With the help of their comments, we have revised the initial
design to make it as simple and accessible as possible."

A variety of different flora and fauna has been affected by changing
farming practices causing pollution and erosion.

Mr Diamond said: "Historically the River Exe has been a very good salmon
and trout river, but soil erosion and poor management of manures has
meant the gravel beds where the fish lay their eggs get choked up."

John Daw, a member of the NFU Council, said Devon had over two thirds of
Britain's hedgerows, so it would be a good opportunity for many farmers.

"A lot of farmers will find that if they just carry on with what they
are doing they will qualify for it."

Farmers will be asked to produce an environmental record for their
farms, recording any particular features, and choose a number of options
to qualify for the scheme.

Farmers interested in taking part in the Tiverton scheme can contact
Mike Izzard, pilot area co-ordinator from the Department of the
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on 01392 824 434.